New venture helps clothe people in human warmth
In January 2012, Tamako Mitarai received what seemed like an offer from destiny to make a life-changing decision. Shigesato Itoi, one of Japan's most celebrated cultural figures, asked her to run a project hiring tsunami surviving women in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, to knit custom-made cardigans.
Mitarai, who was born and grew up in Tokyo, was then working for a consulting firm after coming back from her one-year duty of developing Bhutan tourism in the Himalayan country. She had mixed feelings over Itoi's offer.
“It was good timing because I wanted to be involved in revitalization work more deeply,” she said. “But I had hesitations, too, because it was creating something out of nothing and there were many unknown factors.
“But everybody had the same fear. Nobody was prepared for the quake. I began to think that everybody would have to take on an unknown challenge in order to revitalize Tohoku.”
Mitarai became acquainted with Itoi, a renowned advertising copywriter and the editor-in-chief of the online Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shimbun (Almost Daily Itoi Newspaper), via her blog about her life in Bhutan. Itoi also went to Bhutan.
She left the consulting firm, joined Itoi Shigesato Office to run Kesennuma Knitting Project and flew to the Aran Islands, Ireland, one of the most famous places for high-quality knitting, in June last year to learn how the industry was established.
She decided to go for quality and set a high retail price to pay for the time-consuming process of knitting cardigans by hand.
Knitting is an activity familiar to the fishermen's town of Kesennuma as people there, especially women, are used to weaving fishing nets. To engender customer satisfaction, they develop the wool yarn, from which only custom-made cardigans are produced to provide the feeling that they have human warmth. The cardigans are designed by famous knitter Mariko Mikuni.
“Ms. Mitarai tells me about a customer, and I knit as I imagine the customer's life,” said Yuriko Oyama, one of the knitters. “We take photos of knitters making cardigans and send them to our customers.”
The first step was to meet knitters. Mitarai held knitting workshops locally to meet those who love knitting in Kesennuma.
They made a modest start. For the first round, they called for orders for only five cardigans, each for ¥147,000 (about $1,560) including tax. Despite the high price, Kesennuma Knitting Project received approximately 100 orders.
For the second round, again the project received order requests beyond its expectations for nine cardigans in March.
Although the project only has a Japanese website, it is planning to make an English website to receive orders from overseas, she added.
“Kesennuma is a global town because fishermen have historically gone around the world. I was pleasantly surprised that people there feel it is natural to be connected with the world,” she said.
Mitarai stressed that she wants to establish a sustainable business model by maintaining the high quality of the product to satisfy customers.
“We are planning to spin the project out of (Itoi's office) to be an independent company. I would like to let Kesennuma locals lead the profit-making company in about three years,” she said.
She also said that the project will “make what customers want,” instead of “producing what we can produce.”
“In order to make a business sustainable in the long term, we need to make products that people really want,” she said.
Healing through knitting
Nonetheless, the project has given knitters like Oyama a chance to shine again after her house, where she was running a flower arrangement school, was washed away by the tsunami.
“When I heard about this knitting project, I felt I was saved,” Oyama said. “I was knitting mittens and scarves for people who supported (Kesennuma) in winter after the quake. Then I heard there was a mitten making workshop. I jumped on the chance to go there.”
After the workshop, Mitarai asked Oyama to make a cardigan for her project, an offer to which Oyama, who has been knitting since she was an elementary school student, said, “I would be delighted.”
Her colleague Junko Tamura, whose mochi rice patty shop was also washed away by the tsunami, also had no hesitation taking on the knitting job.
She, like Oyama, also began knitting in her elementary school years.
“Kesennuma people, fishermen and their wives, fix broken fishing nets. Knitting is something familiar to us,” she said.
Their happiness is also something Mitarai was aiming for.
“What we want to create is not only jobs, but also joy and dignity in their lives,” she said.
Produced by The Japan Times